“I saw the sign,” I said—explaining why I was late to my first meeting for spouses of addicts.
I saw a sign as soon as I got off the exit, but I didn’t read it because it wasn’t the sign I was expecting. I was hunting for a modest wooden church sign, engraved or stained, not the Burger King-like commercial style sign that actually identified the place.
It was the infancy of my own process, but even in that agony, I could see how my missing the sign said just about everything there was to say about where I was at that point in my life.
I saw the sign. It just wasn’t the sign I was expecting so I didn’t read it and kept driving. I saw a sign and drove right past it, more than once. I saw the sign but was focused on finding another one, the imaginary and fictional one created by my expectations and assumptions. Get it? You might not be as slow a study as I.
It was a moment of insight I had, and as quickly as it came—poof. There it went as I was wrestling with this new version of myself as someone who could be blindsided and betrayed not by a demon in disguise but by a good and decent man who I admired and loved.
There were days, during my shattering, that I sat on the couch watching Oprah interview person after person who had been gutted or betrayed or was in a relationship with a murderer, thief or who had some double life.
She would always ask the guest some version of this question, “What did you ignore or dismiss or not believe or pay attention to?” saying the question was for the audience, for the others who this idiot could help not be as stupid.
Enraged on behalf of supposedly stupid-in-the chair, I would yell, “Don’t bite. Don’t bite. It’s a trap.” I’d turn on Oprah as though she could hear me and spew monologues like this:
“You just want to think this couldn’t happen to you because you’d know or see all of the signs. You are not actually helping people deal with loss or trauma or shock because you, like them, are trying to pretend this couldn’t happen to you because you’d be smart enough to see or head or know the signs. You are helping people believe there is some suit of armor or protection that can prevent these types of things from happening and it’s a huge fucking lie that will not help them when they are on their floors sobbing and not even knowing what to reach hope and pray for and towards.”
I can speak for the “stupid” and the duped, the oblivious and humiliated. They too are part of my tribe and among those I align myself with.
What you don’t want to know is I was (even then) a journal writing, therapy going feminist partnered with my best friend and soul mate and I was blindsided even still by his addiction. He was not faithful. He lied to my face. He wasted our money. He endangered his health and mine.
I don’t say this because I am or was a victim now or then. I don’t say this because I am proud or ashamed of my oblivion.
I say this for anyone who has ever felt sucker punched by life or a love. It happens. Even if you are in therapy, self-aware and seem to be in a fabulous relationship that others envy, admire and idealize.
That’s not a bit of pretty news is it? I know. And I can’t give you a short list of four ways to avoid hurt, five ways to prevent heartbreak or 10 tips to detect deception. Not that I haven’t thought of starting a dating site that uses lie detectors, or haven’t wondered if ancient face reading techniques would prevent me from my own idiocy. I have. Often. I’ve looked up self-defense classes and wondered but who teaches you how to protect yourself from yourself?
I have a therapist who says, “Use kindsight not hindsight,” because we never know all of the pieces in our past that we use in the present to bash ourselves with once they are revealed or discovered.
My husband’s disclosure, when I discovered it, made me vomit immediately and repeatedly. I stayed nauseous for about a year. I was a pregnant woman with terrible morning sickness and the only thing I gave birth to was a dead version of my former self.
The new grieving self who had birthed an adult stillborn was shaky and weak from the labor of delivering a being the same weight and size as I had been. Me and a few sacred friends were present at the funeral of my former self who I was not ready to eulogize and bury. While financing the funeral I had to meet this brand new stranger doubling as me who had the same child, house and responsibilities as the old me but knew nothing about life, love, fidelity or security anymore.
I had spent a year wrestling with my gut, soul, heart and psyche and every single assumption I had made about anything and everyone. I was sea sick on open waters retching and crying and desperate for land while no longer sure of any of the old landmarks.
I now look back on that year as transformative and necessary and ultimately liberating: the birth place of learning to trust my own self most, of falling in love with the more sacred and natural cycles of the universe and of being forced to let go of the illusions of safety, certainty and security.
I forgive Oprah (I bet she’s relieved) because I understood her desire from the the chair to probe and predict all the ways one might prevent and avert hardship, loss and betrayal.
I still want the tricks, the tips, the strategies and the secrets that keep life all sweetly safe and sturdy. It wasn’t as though I was open and loving and happy for the way my life was derailed. It would be a lie to say I was saying, “Yay devastation. I must be growing so much.” Not—it’s like being pelted with buckets of lemons and they were hard and stinging and I rarely thought – just think of the endless stream of lemonade available to me.
I did not. My sister-in-law once said to me, “Every day you don’t murder him is a good day.”
“I’m just that big and spiritually evolved,” I’d say and we both knew I was not.
But now, sometimes I am. It’s four years later and he and I are good and solid friends. He’s in recovery. I’m on my own journey. It’s an interesting story, really, but this one is not about him or even us but me.
A friend of mine says sometimes you look back and remember all the red flags and know at the time you were thinking, “Red. Shiny.” You saw them and were drawn to them. Maybe you even liked the shape and the color as you walked towards them. You didn’t get a sinking feeling in your gut that you just blew off, or maybe you did but it was competing with elation, lust or exhilaration.
Who said life has an instruction kit and if you pay great attention and follow the words you are guaranteed to put together a perfect product? Nope.
Even when you get all the parts sometimes the screws are missing or you don’t have the tools to use them. Or you get it backwards. Or you have smudge on your glasses. Maybe the cat left a surprise in the box.
What if the script itself includes a life-altering explosion or gut-wrenching betrayal that turns into a wake-up call that softens your spirit so it can get ripe?
Still, I hated my sea sick year. I won’t lie. I didn’t love the vomit or the vomiting. But I am happy for the space and spaciousness that I got.
I feel like an adolescent at mid-life getting a second change to be a teenager but one with an income and a car and no one to rebel against or please.
Sometimes, though, I am still the woman going in circles, having trouble focusing on the road, the GPS, and going slow enough to see the words on the signs in unfamiliar shapes.
The difference now is that I love that squinting, driving in the dark even when it’s hard to see, version of myself. I love her because of and in spite of her blind spots because that is sometimes the best version of ourselves we have available in a moment, year or maybe a whole life.
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Asst Ed: Melissa Petty/Ed: Sara Crolick